Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"The Childhood Obesity Epidemic" and Eating Intuitively

Our society has done a wonderful job scaring everyone about rates of childhood obesity. I haven't delved into the research myself and really looked at the extent to which children are at higher weights/BMIs, etc., but I feel confident that the way our society is responding to any issues that might be present is not that beneficial. Parents are learning they need to restrict their child's food intake and access to food. They are advised by doctors, therapists, and the media, to limit what their child has access to and control food intake.

But let's think about this. Go back to being a child or teenager. Think of what happened when your parents told you you couldn't do something, and particularly when they told you you couldn't do something that all your friends were doing. Right, you rebelled against that, or at least thought about it.

So, when, as a parent, you try to limit your child's access to soda, fast food, pizza, "junk food," etc., the greater risk is that you will accomplish pushing your child towards those foods as they fight back against the restriction. The diet industry, and thus most health professionals, will identify all these foods as "bad." We are instructed to not eat them, and it is implied that it is "bad" if we do. The shame is compounded when it is then implied that to allow access to these foods is "bad" and that having a child eat these foods, especially when they more than society says is idea is "bad." That's a lot of "bad"s, for both parent and child.

It is true that not all foods offer the same nutritional value. Yes, there are limits, and sometimes significant limits, to the nutritional value of the foods that have been identified as bad. However, these foods are present in our world, and the black and white view of "don't eat them" isn't very likely to work out well. So what is a parent to do instead?

Rather than focusing heavily on the foods that your child is eating, focus instead on their hunger and fullness level. Kids are born intuitive eaters. Your babies and young children ate intuitively. They asked for food when they were hungry, and they stopped eating when they were full. They didn't have the neuroses we adults have about foods because, to kids, food is just food. However, as they grow up in our culture and hear about good and bad foods, and external forces begin to impact when they start and stop eating, they lose their ability to follow their hunger and fullness cues. Telling your child she has to eat everything on her plate overrides her fullness cues. Telling your child he cannot eat, or cannot eat ____ when he's hungry overrides his hunger cues. But you can help your kids go back to those cues by talking to them not about the food, but instead about how hungry and full they are.

How does this look? You are concerned your child is overeating, so you ask him whether he's still hungry. If he says yes, you cannot know for sure whether that is the truth, but you can know that you are helping him to think about that factor. Over time, he is more likely to think about this variable when he is making food choices. It will help if this is how you approach food yourself so it is modeled for your child.

It's not as much about what he/she is eating, but the physical cues that are driving the eating behavior. If you focus on what and how much he/she eats, your child is more likely to feel criticized and blamed, particularly if he/she actually is eating due to hunger! Certainly, have foods with high nutritional value available to your kids, and serve these foods. But, I think we all know that there are times when fast food is what is most available, and really, in the end, fast food is a source of protein, carbs, fat, and more so recently, fruits and vegetables. So, it doesn't have to be a big deal. It's not ideal to eat them all the time, but reality is that it also is not a good idea to eat broccoli all the time (I don't know why; I always pick on broccoli! I just have a vendetta against that little green tree....) Eating any one source of food repeatedly limits nutrition, so eat fast food, and broccoli, as part of a varied diet, and you will be fine.

I hope, moving forward, parents will question more trying to limit their child's food intake. I have seen this result in a variety of eating problems, and what is sad is that it is all well-intended and parents are directed to take these steps by health professionals. Again, remember that your babies and young children were intuitive eaters. Help them return to that if our society has overridden this natural way of being.


  1. I'm really glad you wrote this post! My mother-in-law is going to take my 8-year-old sister-in-law to a personal trainer to help her lose weight and get on a diet. I was really upset when my husband told me. She is overweight, but this just seems so wrong to me. She is not doing this under supervision of a pediatrician either. In fact, I don't even know if this personal trainer has ever worked with children. I'm not sure what I should do, because well she is my mother-in-law and I know she had had issues with others telling her how to parent before. My sister-in-law is a sweet little girl. She is sensitive and already has anxiety so this just seems like a disaster waiting to happen.

    On the flip side, my own two kids are super picky eaters. They don't like to eat when I make meals, but will scarf down anything with sugar in it. I'm not against them having sugar or snacks, but what drives me bonkers is when they don't eat the food I make and then want snacks an hour later. If this was once in while I would probably ignore it and let it happen, but it's almost every night. I want them to get in the nutritious meals I make more often before filling up on other stuff. Sometimes I find myself dictating how much they must eat before they can be done and my husband is even worse at doing so. Both of my kids have had issues with falling too low on the growth chart in the past. Now they seem to be staying steady, but it's because I made them eat.

    So my question is how can I find balance between Intuitive Eating and making sure my kids are getting proper nutrition? And do you have any suggestions on how to handle the situation with my mother-in-law?

  2. Krista,

    That really is sad, about your sister-in-law. What is most sad is that your mother-in-law means no harm and is most likely just bowing to the pressures of our society. I'd hope a trainer would refuse to work with a child in that situation. Perhaps you could suggest she see a trained dietitian instead, perhaps pointing out that trainers often have little true training in nutrition/dietetics? Or, as you state, her pediatrician (keeping fingers crossed the pediatrician wouldn't agree that a diet is the way to go!).

    As for picky eaters, there's always the option of packaging up their dinner, so when they are hungry in an hour, you can pull that nutritious dinner out, and heat it up for them to eat! That way you don't have to force an amount to eat at the meal, but it gets the point across that meals are to be eaten before snacks. Your kids would then be left to intuitively eat their dinner, though they might spread it out over time. I suspect after you do this a couple times, they will realize that they might as well just eat the dinner, rather than banking on the snack later. Of course, the snack foods are still totally fine, but are in their rightful place as snacks!

  3. I came here with a question about a little girl I babysit. She is six, and the most picky eater I have ever encountered. Bread, Gogurt, Wendy's chicken nuggets, and Doritos. Her mom has tried telling her she has to try (just one bite) of whatever she is serving for dinner. Leia would rather go hungry and WILL go hungry rather than touch the new stuff. It has become a huge power struggle - and lately Leia has gotten herself so worked up that she is throwing up. (Crying so hard that she gags herself.)

    There are a lot of adults concerned about her, but none of us know what to do. We all know the power struggle is only making things worse, but also don't feel like Doritos is enough for a little girl to live on.

    Any thoughts or suggestions?

  4. Jen,

    I really don't work with kids so wouldn't feel comfortable saying a whole lot about how is best to proceed. With kids, there can be a lot of variables that contribute to food avoidance, and I'd say it's really important to figure out what, specifically, is making her cry. If she cannot put words to it, then maybe it is time for some child therapy or a talk with the pediatrician. I just am not sure where child experts draw the line on normal/what a child will naturally outgrow, and problematic. It kind of sounds like some level of food phobia, maybe, but again, a true child expert would be the one to really make sense of it.

  5. Wendy thank you for your blog and your devotion to helping those with eating disorders. You helped a family member of mine several years ago, and through her, I learned about intuitive eating.

    Since learning about intuitive eating I've discovered that I feel so much better when I don't overeat, and guess what? I am at a healthy weight and have been for several years. After two pregnancies and breastfeeding both children I'm amazed that after all those cravings and days of what felt like ravenous eating I still maintained my weight. On the rare occasion I do overeat, I feel overly full and am reminded how uncomfortable I felt for years of eating more than my body needed.

    It's amazing to see how it really works. You eat nutritious foods when you are hungry and if you are still hungry an hour or so later you eat again because your body is telling you it needs it. When I do pay attention to how much I eat, I realize that on days that I exercise I eat more and vice versa. Our bodies are amazing!

    I am trying to teach my children how to eat intuitively. My three year old can already tell me, "mommy, my tummy is full."